Available this week on DVD, “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt and featuring Jonah Hill, may well provide the most fun Twins fans have watching anything involving baseball this offseason. It may even provide a scintilla of hope for our suffering legions, as it traces the 2002 worst-to-first rise of the small market, low budget Oakland Athletics under the leadership of general manager (and ex-Twin!) Billy Beane. It does so with considerable humor and insight into the inner workings of major league baseball, though you don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy it.
Curiously, the film is based on Michael Lewis’s best-selling non-fiction book detailing Beane’s use of what we now call “sabermetrics” to evaluate and hire (or fire) players. The method was actually pioneered by Beane’s predecessor, Grady Alderson, but Beane along with Paul Depodesta refined it and made it work for a number of years. Depodesta, who asked that his name not be used in the movie, is called Peter Brand here, and his alma mater switched from Harvard to Yale. But this Economics major’s main contribution to the team’s success remains: the application of statistical analysis to baseball managing, as opposed to the seat-of-the-pants subjectivity of the good ol’ boy scouts and player development types.
As Brand, Hill provides a delightful comic foil to Pitt’s Beane. At the opening, he’s employed by the Cleveland Indians, but Beane quickly sniffs him out as the consulting genius behind the Indians’ trades. Raiding him and bringing to Oakland does not, let’s say, prove a popular move. In particular, scouting director Grady Fuson (Ken Medlock), coach Ron Washington (Brent Jennings), and manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) bridle at this computer geek’s being elevated above them in the decision-making process.
The head-butting between Beane and the old hard liners provides some of the film’s most dramatic and humorous moments, though there are plenty of others. Some of the players Billy brings in turn out to be busts or misfits and have to be released or traded—the reason that ex-player Beane doesn’t let himself get close to them. (His schooling Peter in the art of giving the bad news is quietly hilarious, Hill portraying Brand’s nervous reluctance to confront the athletes to a fare thee well.)
There’s not a whole lot of on-field action in “Moneyball”—Beane refused to attend most games—but what there is looks far more authentic than the run of the mill sports flick. (I had to check the credits to see if actual pro ballplayers play themselves: they don’t.) Director Bennett Miller makes surprisingly continual use of silence, a true rarity in a sports movie, and Pitt convinces us that Beane actually is thinking. Screenwriters Steven Zaillan and Oscar winner (for “The Social Network”) Aaron Sorkin employ actual game footage and announcing sparingly but effectively to convey the reality of the A’s amazing winning streak before their playoff loss to—the Twins! And film editor Christopher Tellefson, along with production designer Jess Gonchor, provides consistent visual appeal—another all too unusual treat in a sports movie, oddly enough.
“Moneyball” is rated “PG-13” for “strong language,” and that feels about right, though young fans will not be marred by seeing it, and their love of the game will be left intact. (The “romance” of baseball is both scoffed at and appreciated here.) Beane’s own reflections upon the problems of making decisions based on money enrich the film thematically, bringing his personal failures and successes into a wider context. In short, “Moneyball” is fun to watch, and it will likely fetch Pitt an Oscar nomination, if not the little fella himself. It will help get baseball geeks through these dark days until the pitchers and catchers report in less than a couple of months. Surely we can lose fewer than 99 this year—can’t we?